The Riverfront Development Corporation quietly took over management of the bright yellow Delaware Children’s Museum last January. It bought the Riverfront Market in December, again with no fanfare.
While Wilmington was reeling from being dubbed “Murder Town USA” in Newsweek, a hat trick was happening on its riverfront.
Three things tipped the Riverfront—the new Penn Cinema Imax, the newer 10-story Westin Hotel, and 330 new luxury rental units.
The Riverfront, its fortunes flip-flopping since the Shipyard Shops lost L.L. Bean in 2007, is back, complete with its own Starbucks. It attracts 2 million visits each year.
Joe’s Crab S hack there has grown from a $1.1 million store to a $5 million one. Close to 1,400 people live at the Riverfront. More than 6,000 work there.
The average salary on the Riverfront is $68,000, and the average for the newest jobs is $107,000, according to the University of Delaware’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research.
The failed Shipyard Shops has been reborn as the Shipyard Center, 92 percent rented. Nurses, chefs, physical trainers, physical therapists, and human resources execs come to work there every day. A law firm has set up shop a nearby.
New employers include Barclay’s Bank Delaware, AAA Mid-Atlantic and Navient, formerly Sallie Mae, gyms, museums and sports attractions.
Michael S. Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development Corporation, said he knew the Riverfront was booming one cold day in December – just about the time the unfavorable Newsweek article was published.
“In one day, and it was just about the time the city article came out, we had 1,200 people skating on our rink. We had 800 admissions to the children’s museum in five hours. The trampoline park had to close twice during the course of the day because they couldn’t take any more people in, and the Starbucks had lines out the door.
And they were all families.”
Even before the cinema-hotel-housing triad was in place, the Riverfront gave back $32 million in public revenue to the city and the state in 2012 alone.
The city invested $21 million between 1996 and 2012, and it got $46 million back in tax revenue. The state appropriated $81 million for the Riverfront and had already collected $210 million in tax revenues by 2012, according to a 2012 report on the Fiscal Impact of the Wilmington Riverfront from UD’s Center for Applied Demography.
About 330 of the newest residents live in the window-walled Residences at Harlan Flats, where the well-appointed foyer occupies space that once was home mostly to garbage trucks.
City trash trucks once entered the old Justison Landing Public Works Yard precisely where residents now enter, said Jeff Flynn, city economic development director.
When he started working at the city in 2004, Flynn said he could feel the tension between the dreamers who wanted to move the public works yard and those who wanted the status quo.
“It’s pretty dramatic. First off, you’ve got Barclay’s and AAA and now Navient.
You have a new office market down there that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Flynn said. “And it’s not just the city that benefits. The state gets a huge benefit through personal income taxes. The state is the primary beneficiary.”
The state gleans 6.6 percent in personal imcome tax on the portion of salaries that exceeds $60,000. The employee base is diverse – from supermarket workers to urban wildlife refuge staffers.
Many of the employees live in Justison Landing and Harlan Flats, two new apartment buildings where one-bedrooms rent for $1042 to $1840.
“It’s come long way,” said Gregory Pettinaro, whose father Verino was one of the first developers to take a chance on the Riverfront. “Every piece of the Riverfront that opens up is all part of synergy that makes it what it is today and also what will help it grow in the future. If it’s wasn’t for the RDC, I don’t know if the boom would be there.”
How did an area in continuous industrial use since the late 1700s segue from factories and foundries to family entertainment?
Flynn credited the RDC and the mayors, governors and members of the general assembly willing to fund the RDC when it was just a dream.
A heaping share of the credit goes to Michael S. Purzycki and Megan McGlinchey of the Riverfront Development Corporation, according to Faith Pizor, executive director of the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association, a nonprofit that turned an overhead-door factory into a row club complete with blue awnings and classic boathouse doors.
“I don’t think we would have half of what we have without Mike Purzycki and Megan McGlinchey. They’re responsible for creating this. They not only had the vision, but they carried it out so well,” Pizor said. “Not everyone has their foresight and is as willing to work through problems as they have been.”
Pizor said parents who drop their teen rowers at WYRA for morning-long sessions now take advantage of the Riverfront amenities to shop, work out, a relax at an eatery or get their hair done.
“They have created a wonderful mini-city down here. It’s safe. It has so much to offer. It has movies, it has a variety of restaurants. It has attractions.”
Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development Corporation and McGlinchey, its director of operations, have been putting the pieces together at the Riverfront for more than 17 years.
McGlinchey has been doing two jobs since January 2014, when she took over management of the Delaware Children’s Museum after years of deficits and the exodus of six board members. Under McGlinchey’s management, the museum is profitable, freshly painted and now framing a new $500,000 miniature golf course.
Part of the savings came when RDC charged the museum nothing for McGlinchey’s work. “When you don’t have to replace your executive director, you save $100,000 all day long,” Purzycki said.
Since McGlinchey took over, Joe’s Crab Shack is selling 15 percent more kid’s meals, according to Manager Jamey Kennedy.
Under RDC management, the museum admission price dropped from $12 to $8.75, a new pirate ship and a touch-tank aquarium were added, and weekend hours were extended to 8 p.m. Some of changes were small but important—like the 230 light bulbs that needed replacing, but the museum did not own a crane to reach the 25-foot-high ceiling.
Purzycki soft pedals the RDC achievements: “We just used the economies of scale and the advantages of having a maintenance infrastructure a few hundreds yards away. And we were able to have our bookkeeping operation available,” he said. “We’re happy to make a contribution to a Riverfront neighbor.”
The RDC bought the Riverfront Market in December. This spring, it will get a subtle makeover—paint, better lighting, floor resurfacing.
Purzycki said the public perception of the Riverfront had been changing since the apartments were opened but the opening of Penn Cinema in 2013 and the Westin last year “broke the dam.”
“We’ve gotten more people calling about locating down here on some days than we can accommodate,” he said. “You can see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together today, when five, six, seven years ago, we could see it, but we hadn’t quite realized it yet.”
“Some people viewed this as a threat to downtown,” Purzycki said. “I think it turns out to be a complement to downtown. What’s going on in the downtown helps us, and what’s going on down here helps the downtown.”